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St. Lawrence County sales tax increase possible despite opposition

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CANTON — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s comments Tuesday sanctioning a sales tax increase for St. Lawrence County may signal a sea change in public policy, but not a capitulation on the part of state senators who have questioned the need for a hike in the past.

The county Board of Legislators wants to increase its sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, bringing the total — with the state’s 4 percent — to 8 percent.

Gov. Cuomo, in Potsdam on Tuesday, said he would sign home-rule legislation enabling the county to raise its sales tax if it was requested by the county Legislature and supported by the district’s state legislators. Two state senators who represent St. Lawrence County have said repeatedly that the governor would not sign into law any tax increase.

“It appears his position has softened,” said state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Utica. “I’m re-examining our position. I’m keeping an open mind on everything. In my opinion, this should be looked at in totality. My concern is there’s such a burden on people. We’ve just got to face this and be sensitive to this right now.”

To bolster its case for a sales tax increase, St. Lawrence County prepared a five-year plan on how it could reduce property taxes with the estimated additional revenue. The first year of the plan called for a potential property tax decrease of 14.3 percent. For 2013, county lawmakers approved a tax levy increase of 14.4 percent, so the proposal would cut taxes to where they were last year. However, the plan in subsequent years calls for estimated tax levy increases of 2.9 percent, 3.8 percent, 3.2 percent and 3 percent.

“The county five-year plan was not a tax-cut plan,” said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. “Property taxes were raised in the plan. It not only has a sales tax increase but a property tax increase, and I can’t support that.”

St. Lawrence County Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, disagreed with Mrs. Ritchie’s take on the plan.

“The fact is the plan does reduce property taxes,” he said. “It is a bipartisan plan. We have a consensus. I hope she keeps an open mind.”

Mrs. Ritchie, who is scheduled to meet with county officials later this month, acknowledged that Gov. Cuomo’s remarks were a change but said he also was pushing his budget proposal as having no new taxes.

“That’s a little bit of a gray area,” she said.

Home-rule legislation could come to the Senate from state Sen. Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury, who is willing to sponsor it along with similar requests for a sales tax increase from Essex and Hamilton counties, which she also represents.

Mrs. Little’s previous attempts at home-rule legislation for Essex and Hamilton did not make it to the floor of the Senate, so a sponsor for the legislation is no guarantee of passage.

Home-rule legislation for St. Lawrence County in the Assembly has had the support of Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa.

An easier sell might be rolling sales tax increases for the few counties that want them and are not yet at 4 percent into the state budget as part of the governor’s proposed elimination of legislative approval of sales tax extensions for counties, Mrs. Little said.

Giving counties that have held their sales tax at 3 percent for years the ability to increase the sales tax should help with the pressure from pension costs, health care increases and the state’s 2 percent tax cap, Mrs. Little said.

Mr. Putney welcomed Mrs. Little’s willingness to carry legislation the county wants.

“I applaud Senator Little,” he said.

An increase in sales tax, regardless of its effect on property taxes, is still difficult for many people, Mrs. Little said.

“A tax is a tax and it has an effect on people in the community,” she said.

Looking at a potential sales tax increase for St. Lawrence County as part of a broader picture might be the way to go, Mr. Griffo said. Automatic sales tax extenders, increases for the few counties not at an 8 percent sales tax total and a cellphone surcharge increase for those not on a level playing field with others could be part of a parity package, he said.

But St. Lawrence County should go further, Mr. Griffo said.

He had earlier proposed the county conduct a referendum during a general election to gauge the support of residents for a sales tax increase, a measure he still supports. The county needs to reach an agreement with its towns and villages over any distribution they might receive as part of a sales tax increase.

“There has to be consensus,” he said.

He also suggested the state comptroller’s office conduct an audit of the county.

“An audit would give more of a picture of what’s gone on, if a solid foundation is there,” Mr. Griffo said. “That might be kind of a benchmark.”

Once an audit was complete, a fiscal advisory board of county residents with professional fiscal credentials could help examine the county budget.

“It would be another set of eyes to make sure they’re making wise and prudent decisions,” he said. “It was done in Utica and it worked. It’s not a control board. I’m suggesting it come from their own backyard. You could find people with great credibility that want to offer their talents and skills. I’ve talked to a couple of community leaders and they think it’s not a bad idea.”

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